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Alexei Navalny

Volume 809: debated on Thursday 21 January 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the Government of Russia about the arrest of Alexei Navalny.

My Lords, I begin by extending my best wishes and those of your Lordships’ House for health and happiness to the noble Lord, who I understand is 79 years young today.

It is appalling that Alexei Navalny has been detained on arbitrary charges. We raise his case regularly and directly with the Russian Government. On 15 January, immediately prior to his return, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Moscow raised our concerns with the Russian foreign ministry. My colleague, Minister Morton, who is responsible for our relations, also raised this issue with her Russian counterpart in November 2020. As the noble Lord will know, the Foreign Secretary issued a statement on 18 January calling for Mr Navalny’s immediate and unconditional release.

First, I thank the Minister for his very kind words. Returning to the subject, does he not agree that Alexei Navalny has shown tremendous bravery by returning to Russia after the assassination attempt? Will the Minister agree that the Government might show support for his release, backing it up by increasing sanctions against the Putin-supporting oligarchs based in London in relation to their investments, property purchases and travel to the United Kingdom? That would show some real support in trying to get Alexei Navalny out of prison.

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that I agree with his sentiments, and I look forward to working with him in this respect. Of course, we keep further sanctions under review but, as he will know, following the poisoning of Alexei Navalny last year, we issued proscriptions against six individuals and the State Scientific-Research Institute of Organic Chemistry and Technology.

My Lords, Mr Putin constantly challenges the global risk-based order and his behaviour is erratic, whether it is attempts to kill political opponents, such as Navalny, a WMD attack on our nation’s soil, a stream of outrageous damaging global cyberattacks, provoking flights into our airspace, a build-up of nuclear submarines threatening our deterrent, or actions in Ukraine, et cetera. It is difficult to know what he hopes to achieve, but it is certain that there is an increasing risk of miscalculation, which is highly dangerous and could lead to hostilities. Is the Minister concerned about this risk, and should there not be urgent action to rejuvenate arms control agreements, military-to-military dialogue and confidence-building measures, such as New START and the open skies agreement?

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with great expertise and insight; I agree with the thrust of what he proposes and the specifics that he mentioned. We want to work with Russia and other partners on the very objectives that he has outlined, but the detention of the main opposition leader demonstrates a continuing decrease in democracy and human rights in Russia, and we will continue to hold it accountable for that.

My Lords,

“Confident political leaders do not fear competing voices, nor”

see the need,

“to commit violence against or wrongfully detain political opponents.”

Those are not my words but those of Mr Mike Pompeo, the outgoing United States Secretary of State, with whom I rarely agree. Does the Minister agree?

My Lords, I do agree with former Secretary of State Pompeo’s words. That is why we work very closely with the United States in dealing with the issues and challenges that Russia brings to the world.

Alexei Navalny’s latest investigation into what he has called the world’s “biggest bribe”—Putin’s sprawling palace at the Black Sea—is a reminder that corruption is endemic in autocracy and that tackling it undermines the rule of strong men such as Putin. With that in mind, will the Government continue to encourage greater transparency over Russian financial activities around the world, including in the United Kingdom, and take steps to combat money laundering? Can my noble friend the Minister update us on the progress that has been made on this since the Intelligence and Security Committee published its report last year?

My Lords, I apologise: some of my noble friend’s questions were not quite clear. However, I believe that she referred to the ISC report on Russia. As she will know, the Government’s response was published immediately after its release. Russia is a top national security priority for the Government, and we will introduce new legislation concerning the security services and law enforcement. As she will be aware, the Government are currently looking at how our sanctions regime can be further extended to deal with corruption and illicit financing.

My Lords, having worked in a Russian ministry in Moscow for three years in the early 1990s, I am hugely aware of the impact on the Russian people of the appalling treatment of the extraordinarily brave Mr Navalny. How on earth he brings himself to go back to Russia, I do not understand. Will the Government support a statement from our Parliament to the Russian Parliament expressing our strong support for the fundamental rights of Mr Navalny and the Russian people to free speech and freedom of assembly?

My Lords, on the principle that the noble Baroness raises, it is absolutely for Parliament to decide on issuing such statements. However, she will have seen the strong statement that we issued with partners on this very issue.

My Lords, the Minister said that the Government were keeping matters under review. Returning to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Helic, it is now 15 months since the publication of the Russia report and the Government have yet to implement even one of the 21 recommendations. There are enormous concerns that the City of London is still acting as a haven for dark money connected to human rights abuses in Russia. What steps will the Government take to ensure that UK businesses are not complicit in human rights violations in Russia?

My Lords, I believe that I have already addressed, in part, the issues of human rights and sanctions, and of course I will be talking to the noble Lord as we bring forward some of the broader sanction applications. On the report, we have acted. I have already alluded to legislation, and we continue to step up our activity, both domestically and internationally, to tackle illicit finance. The National Crime Agency has increased the number of investigations into corrupt leads and, among other things, the UK has used existing immigration powers in dozens of cases relating to hostile state activity. We will also review all tier 1 investor visas granted before 5 April 2015.

My Lords, we all recognise that the UK, as a democracy, is far more open to Russian influence than Russia is to British. Does the Minister agree that Russian interference, including finance in British politics, is at least as severe a threat to UK sovereignty as the European Court of Justice? Does he accept that the Government’s response to the ISC report is widely considered to have been “defensive and uninformative”? Can the Government assure us that they are working actively to tighten the law on foreign agents in British politics, on financial contributions from abroad to political parties and on espionage?

My Lords, I can give the noble Lord that assurance. On the question of interference in elections, he will be aware that various legal matters are already under way, so I cannot speak specifically to those. On the other matters that he raised, I have already said that we are acting, and will be responding, and have already taken steps, as our response to the ISC report has demonstrated.

My Lords, Russia, at its own request, rejoined the Council of Europe a few months ago but does not seem to have grasped the fundamental values of that council. Sanctions are really water off the duck’s back. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, came a lot nearer to the truth as to what we need to do if we are going to have an effective impact. Does the Minister agree that we need to join Berlin and Paris in encouraging Russia to follow the principles inherent in democratic societies and the underlying principles of the Council of Europe, which it was so keen to rejoin?

My Lords, in the interest of time, I totally agree with my noble friend, and we will work closely with Germany and France in that respect.

My Lords, the Russian Federation has failed to respond to the overwhelming evidence that it poisoned the opposition leader using Novichok, for which of course it has previous form. Addressing the EU last year, Alexei Navalny said that sanctions should target the money of the oligarchs who hold Putin’s assets. This lack of adherence to a rules-based international order has gone on for too long. Does the Minister agree now that there should be direct consequences, as suggested by Mr Navalny, for this outrageous breach of all the norms of civilised states, all of which is compounded by the subsequent arrest and jailing of Mr Navalny on his return to his own country?

My Lords, suffice to say that I agree with the noble Lord. I add that we have already taken quite specific actions, both through multilateral organisations such as the OPCW and specifically on issues of sanctions related directly to the Novichok poisoning of Mr Navalny. We will continue to work with partners and see what further steps we can take. As those come to bear, I will of course share them with your Lordships’ House.

Sitting suspended.